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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Poetry in motion: Undercranking Buster Keaton's Cops

As we all know, the films of Buster Keaton are the most profoundly funny, and profoundly beautiful, in all of cinema. (I know that, anyway.) In this terrific video, film historian and silent film accompanist Ben Model takes a close look at the various cranking speeds Keaton used as a grace note (he's all about grace), to achieve perfection in timing, tempo and fluidity of movement.

This is a lost art in the world of sound cinema, though occasionally you'll see the equivalent of "undercranking" (slowing the speed of the film through the camera to make it seem faster when projected) done badly via computer in some modern chase or action sequences. Keaton's films are essentially dance numbers, and he made film itself part of the exquisite choreography.

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Watch "Cops" (it's on YouTube, though the quality is terrible, and on the Kino DVD with "The General") before or after you watch Moser's wonderful piece, to see how it plays. I'm reminded that much of what I consider to be bad editing in today's movies is stuff that violates the Keaton Code of respecting the integrity of the image, and the aesthetic intelligence of the audience. As Walter Kerr wrote: "It was Keaton's notion that cutting, valuable as it was in a thousand ways, must not replace the recording function of the camera, must not create the happening. The happening must happen, be photographed intact, then be related by cutting to other happenings."

To me, that is the essence of cinema. And it explains why so many of the movies I see today strike me as feeble desecrations of the values I treasure most in The Movies. Random bits flying out of the cinematic woodchipper don't do it for me. The filmmakers may have their reasons for cutting (to piece together a performance, say), but it's not necessarily apparent to the audience. Instead, shots often seem chosen just to "mix it up" -- or (just as bad) simply to supply the next piece of dialog. The way I look at it, every cut is a manifest expression of failure, unless it is an essential choice. The reason for ending one shot and going to another should feel organically necessary.

(tip: "Damfino...")

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